Army diver McLain makes miraculous recovery to return to competition

A tense silence fell over the San Juan Natatorium as Zach McLain stood atop the 1-meter diving board.

Army diver Greg Sievers glanced at coach Ron Kontura, who chewed his fingernails along the edge of the pool. Sievers held his breath, as thoughts raced through his head.

Here's his first dive. What's going to happen? How's his neck going to be?

On the face of it, there was nothing to fear.

The natatorium, used by Army's swimming and diving team for its preseason practice, was Olympic-caliber and practically brand new. The pool went 16 feet deep and held crystal-clear water. This wasn't a swimming hole in the Pennsylvania mountains. There would be no surprises beneath the surface this time.

But the scary memory of what happened the last time McLain's head hit the water created plenty of unease around the pool, except for the guy on the board.

"A strange thing happened," McLain said. "I lost a little bit of the fear of diving because of the accident. It was like, 'I did this, and now I'm in this safe environment.'

"I wouldn't say I was extremely scared to get back up there."

He was, without a doubt, extremely lucky.

McLain's diving career appeared to end July 5, 2007, when he broke his neck diving into a swimming hole near his grandparents' cabin in Wellsboro, Pa. The accident left McLain with four fractured vertebrae -- the C5, C7, T1 and T2 -- and a potentially daunting diagnosis.

"Typically, a diving accident where someone breaks that many vertebrae, the doctors always see some paralysis," McLain said. "That was kind of a sobering thought."

Fortunately, it was only a thought. McLain needed more than 20 staples to repair a gash on the top of his head, but he avoided surgery and amazingly sustained no permanent damage to his neck.

Just six months after the accident, the Black Knights junior was back on a diving board in Puerto Rico. McLain returned to competition Jan. 19 against Bucknell, placing third in the 1-meter competition and fourth in the 3-meter.

"After the initial impact, it seemed like it would never be the same," said McLain's father, Scott. "It was surprising how quick everything got back on board again, figuratively and literally."

Zach's memory of the day is sharp, right up until the doomed dive. He and his younger brother, Nick, had made the trip to Wellsboro for the Fourth of July holiday. Their parents, Scott and Andrea, would join them later in the week.

Along with his cousin, Mike, and Mike's girlfriend, the McLain brothers drove the 20 miles to the swimming hole. They had gone diving there countless times before with family members, including their brother, Zane, a freshman diver at Pitt, and their dad.

"It's one of these spots that goes against the better judgment of all the women [in the family]," Scott McLain said. "It's kind of a precarious place. It draws the guys."

After climbing up to a cliff that sits 3-4 meters above the water, Zach challenged Nick to execute a front one-and-a-half flip -- "a pretty simple dive," he said.

Zach went first. Nick asked his brother why he wasn't taking a running start, but Zach shrugged him off.

"It's not an impressive cliff," Zach said. "I'd done it so many times before, but I guess I came too close or there was something in the water I didn't know about. I did the dive. That's really the last thing I remember."

Added Nick: "It was a beautiful dive, just not for the environment. He didn't go out nearly far enough."

When Zach floated up face down, Nick and Mike initially thought he was joking. Then they saw the blood and immediately jumped in -- from the same cliff -- to pull Zach to shore. Zach regained consciousness, and though he doesn't remember doing so, he walked up a small hill to the car.

His memory returned during the drive to the hospital, with Nick holding a towel to the massive head wound. As Nick peppered him with basic questions -- What's your full name? Where do you go to college? -- Zach supported his neck with his hands, as he had been trained to do at Army.

Nick jokingly asked if he still needed to fulfill his end of the diving challenge.

"I didn't want to scare him or anything," Nick said.

He's just doing what he loves to do, he's doing what he's known how to do, but we see the big picture of what he's overcome. It's a miracle that he's able to walk right now, from the doctor's perspective, let alone be active. It's a story of victory in a sense of an individual who was dealt a challenge of life. He took that challenge and said, 'I'm not going to be defeated.'

--Army coach Ron Kontura

Doctors at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hospital discovered the fractured vertebrae and immediately immobilized McLain. They hoped to airlift him to Hershey Medical Center, but a storm forced them to go by ambulance.

Nick had phoned his parents shortly after the accident, thinking Zach needed only stitches. When he called a second time, Andrea and Scott rushed to Hershey, about 45 minutes from their home in Red Lion, Pa.

"It was very unnerving," Andrea McLain said. "We didn't know what the prognosis was. We knew he could feel his toes."

Before July 5, McLain had never broken a bone. His worst "injury" occurred as a little kid, when he received five stitches in his hand after cutting it on a doorknob (his brothers had locked him in a closet).

Now he was possibly facing neck surgery. Doctors in Hershey took a series of MRIs and X-rays and determined McLain hadn't altered the alignment of his spine. He could heal in a neck brace.

"The specialist flat-out said your kid is one lucky kid," Scott McLain said. "[His neck] was split like a piece of wood down the middle, and if it had been another millimeter, it would have hit his spinal cord.

"That would have been it."

Released after three days, Zach called Kontura with the news. The coach initially thought Zach was joking, but when he heard Angela's worried voice in the background, he knew it was real.

"It was very sobering for me to say, 'You did what?'" Kontura said. "My No. 1 concern was that he'll be able to walk. Diving was the last thing on my mind."

McLain mulled his diving future as he sat at home in the neck brace, which was rarely removed during the next eight weeks. He had been scheduled to spend the fall semester as an exchange cadet at the Air Force Academy, where he would train with the Falcons' diving team before returning to West Point.

But the accident would keep him off the board for some time, perhaps for good.

"There was a point that I thought, 'Maybe I shouldn't dive again. Maybe this is how I exit the sport,'" McLain said.

But after discussing it with his parents, McLain decided that if doctors gave him the go-ahead, he would try to compete again.

"He was totally immobile, couldn't do anything, so he wasn't too crazy about getting back into it," Andrea McLain said. "But I knew how much he enjoyed it. If he quit under these circumstances, years down the road I thought he'd regret it."

Exactly a month after the accident, Zach reported to Air Force. He still had another month to go in the brace, which he could take off only if he was sitting in a stationary position.

Restlessness quickly set in, and McLain began lifting weights while still wearing the brace. He and a friend even climbed a mountain behind the academy.

"I wouldn't have done that at the beginning, but by the end, I was just getting so antsy," he said. "I guess I learned a little bit about patience."

McLain's rehabilitation consisted mostly of strength training and resistance training to rebuild his neck muscles and range of motion. The recovery went quickly, which Kontura attributes to the vigorous workouts McLain and Sievers conducted together the previous spring at West Point.

"We trained really hard," Sievers said, "and he was in really good shape as far as strength, flexibility. You have an accident like this, you have to take that into account. If he'd been a guy who sat on the couch and watched TV all day, how would his body react?"

Did their regimen save McLain from a more serious injury?

"I'm calling that luck," Sievers said. "Nothing else."

Doctors cleared McLain to dive in late November, with the caveat that he must closely monitor his neck. He started off practicing basic jumps into the water before working on his lists of dives at both 1 meter and 3 meters.

Kontura was constantly checking in to see if McLain had any sharp pain or unusual soreness.

"He was practicing at an at-will basis," Kontura said. "I structured his practices like, 'OK, let's do a little bit more each day.' Just baby-stepped him back into shape."

McLain had been conditioned to competition after years of diving in high school and at Army, but the Bucknell meet brought some stage fright.

"It was a cool feeling," he said, "like I was new to the sport again."

McLain participated in Army's final six meets, including the Patriot League championships, and finished as the team's No. 2 diver behind the record-setting Sievers. After the season, he was honored with the school's Maggie Dixon Inspiration Award, named after the late women's basketball coach. With Sievers gone, he moves to the front of the platform as the team's most experienced diver next season.

"He's just doing what he loves to do, he's doing what he's known how to do, but we see the big picture of what he's overcome," Kontura said. "It's a miracle that he's able to walk right now, from the doctor's perspective, let alone be active.

"It's a story of victory in a sense of an individual who was dealt a challenge of life. He took that challenge and said, 'I'm not going to be defeated.'"

Adam Rittenberg covers college sports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com